Strawberry Tartlets and a Dead Starlet (8 page)

"Man overboard!" someone shouts into the crowd.

 

 

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

Staff members clear a path as a wet figure is pulled back into the boat. Luckily, the vessel isn't moving too fast and water in the Gulf is warm. A woman gasps as the victim of the fall passes her. I narrow my eyes, trying to get a good look through the crowd in front of me. It's no use.

"Who is it?" I ask. "Can you see anything?"

Presley shakes his head.

"Wait right here," he instructs me. "I'm going to figure out what's going on."

I take a deep breath as Presley pushes his way through the crowd. Our evening together is turning out to be what I had hoped it wouldn't. A disaster. I'm no step closer to finding the killer than I was before I had set foot on the docks. The only secret unveiled tonight is that Frankie is having trouble holding down two jobs.

As the crowd moves indoors, my eyes wander around the top deck. The moon is fuller than ever, and hardly anyone is up here to enjoy it. Abandoned wine glasses are scattered on every table as well as the ground. Music is still playing, but I see the shoreline straight ahead.

A stranger walks by me, and at first I pay no attention.

But unlike everyone else, the stranger is moving in the opposite direction of the crowd— and is dressed in a dark coat and baseball cap. I can't help but wonder why someone would bother with a jacket on such a humid night. My stomach churns as the stranger continues walking—disappearing into the shadows.

I slowly creep in the same direction and spot a staircase leading to the bottom level.

"Poppy!" Presley jogs towards me, waving his hand.

"What is it?" I reply.

"Poppy, you've got to come with me," he says.

"But I just saw—"

"Poppy," he interrupts. "The person who fell overboard was a woman. It was Frankie."

 

*   *   *

 

"I'm fine," Frankie insists. "Don't do me any favors."

Frankie dries her hair. She's dressed in a spare uniform that's two sizes too big, and she's having a hard time looking at me.

"The Captain wants you to get checked out at the hospital," Presley insists. "Come on. I'll drive you there."

"I can drive myself. Thanks." Frankie gulps, rubbing the excess makeup from her eyes.

"Don't be like this, Frankie," I respond. "We really do want to help, despite what you may think."

"No, you're just looking for an excuse to ask me about Lacy." She bites the side of her lip and gathers her things. "I already gave it to you straight, and just because she's dead, that doesn't mean we're not friends anymore. I promised I wouldn't go around telling people her business."

"I'm not going to ask you about Lacy," I answer. It's a tough promise to make, seeing as I need more information. But I have to do it. "Frankie, you could have died. Just let us help you out."

"This isn't a cruise ship," she clarifies. "I yelled for help, and plenty of people heard me."

"How did you fall in the first place?" I ask.

Frankie hangs her head—her usual, smug attitude temporarily disappearing.

"I don't know," she says quietly.

Presley glances in my direction.

"Come on," he suggests. "Let's get out of here, okay?" He extends a hand to Frankie, and she willingly takes it. I grab her purse as the three of us step out into the night and head to the parking lot. Whispers fill the air—some too quiet to make out and some are quiet wishes of good health. Frankie nods, noticing right away that all eyes are on her.

"Thanks," she responds as another onlooker offers her congratulations that she made it safely back to the boat. "Thanks. Thank you. Yes, I'm fine. Thank you."

We approach Presley's rental car, and right away he opens her door. Frankie slides into the back seat. Presley shuts her door for her and moves on to the passenger's door. He grins as he waits for me to get in.

"Nice guy," Frankie mutters when the two of us are alone. "Lacy had nothing but glowing comments about him."

"I'm sure she felt the same about Chance
The Hammer
Munrow," I comment.

"He was a good bodyguard, but Lacy complained about everybody," Frankie admits. "It's just the way she was."

Presley hops in the driver's seat and starts the car.

"All buckled up?"

"The hospital is just up the road," Frankie responds. "Thanks. I'm sure I'm just fine."

As Presley leaves the parking lot, I stare out the window at the marina. The docks are lit up, and each boat in the distance reminds me of my first impression of Gator Bay. I loved the magic of the ocean, the waves, and the people who clung to that magic. Maybe that's what drew Lacy Leigh back to her hometown. Maybe she was in the process of finally coming home.

"No problem," Presley answers.

The car remains silent for a few minutes as we turn onto a main road.

"It was dark." Frankie breaks the silence—speaking quieter than normal. "I couldn't see much. I was taking a quick five-minute break like I normally do during last call cocktails, and then…bam. I hit the water."

"Maybe you slipped?" I suggest.

"No, I think I was pushed."

"Who would do that?" I immediately blurt out. Frankie shrugs, but I already know the answer to my question. Frankie knows things. Maybe, like Presley, she knows things about Lacy Leigh that she shouldn't.

The person who pushed her overboard could be Lacy's killer.

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

Bree's hands are shaking as she sips her morning tea. I eagerly take a sip of my salted caramel coffee and take off my sunglasses as I glance out the window. The kitchen at Magnolia Harbor is still closed, and the two of us went into town this morning for a light breakfast. Bree eyes the collection of pastries I selected from behind the counter—two almond croissants and an order of beignets covered in powdered sugar.

"I know we should be enjoying our time off, but I think I might go crazy if the kitchen doesn't open soon," Bree says quietly.

"Well, it's not exactly time off now is it? We're under investigation at the moment. I can barely sleep."

"I talked to the spa staff last night," Bree responds. "They saw nothing. They weren't even here the day Lacy arrived. I guess the Masons canceled their couples massage, and Mr. Wheeler claims that stone massages and fancy oils are no better than voodoo."

"He's a bit of a grump," I confess.

"Ford stopped by to grab some of Gilly's equipment." Bree carefully bites into a beignet and immediately dabs the corners of her mouth with a napkin. "Turns out Detective Sugars and Gilly played on the same high school football team. Apparently, they didn't get along back then. Or now."

"Small world," I reply. "That explains why he needed a breather after his interview."

"Tell me about last night." Bree sips her tea and waits for me to talk about the dinner cruise. I taste a tiny morsel of almond croissant, but my stomach is still sour from last night. If anything, talking to Frankie just confirmed that there was someone out there with unfinished business, and I have no idea
who
or
what
they want.

"You're not going to believe this, but something crazy happened."

"I knew it." Bree giggles, holding up her teacup. "Presley kissed you. Did I call it or what?"

"Yeah, yeah." I take a sip of my coffee. "You're so clever."

"I told you I know his type," she answers. "So does this mean you figured out what he's hiding from us?"

"Yes and no," I explain. "I think he might've seen something he shouldn't have, but the problem is that he has no idea what it could be."

"That would mean that the killer will return," Bree points out. "I mean, assuming that the killer really was after Presley the first time. We still can't be one hundred percent sure of that."

"Funny you should bring that up," I continue. "There's more." I take a deep breath. "I saw Frankie last night."

"So was she on the cruise too?" Bree's eyes widen.

"Sort of. She works on the boat."

"No way," Bree mutters. "Please tell me you took advantage of that little detail."

"I asked her about Lacy," I respond. "I asked her if the two of them were friends and if she knew what Lacy was up to while she was here, and…"

"It didn't go well?" Bree guesses.

"It went horribly." I sigh. "She basically said she was sworn to secrecy and that I might as well pump Lacy's aunt for information."

"That means she
was
a good friend of Lacy's, and she
does
know something she's not saying," Bree responds. "It's progress."

I nod, slowly sipping my coffee as I contemplate the events of last night—seeing Frankie serving drinks, dancing under the stars, the stranger on the top deck, and Frankie's plunge into the ocean. Whoever pushed her will be back for more.

"Frankie was pushed overboard," I blurt out. Bree coughs, inhaling a cloud of powdered sugar.

"What?"

"At least she said she was pushed." I hand Bree another napkin. "I know it sounds crazy, but I believe her. Frankie was lucky that multiple people noticed her splashing around in the water before the boat got too far away."

"She's also lucky she wasn't drunk," Bree adds. "She wasn't drunk, was she?"

"Not that I could tell." I shake my head. Frankie was Frankie all evening.

"Who does she think pushed her?" Bree asks, lowering her voice.

"If I knew the answer to that, I would've told you already."

"Okay, let's start from the beginning," Bree continues. "Tell me everything she said to you yesterday. Don't leave anything out."

"I already told you," I remind her. "She wouldn't talk about Lacy Leigh." I pause, remembering the worried look on her face when Presley drove her to the hospital to get checked out. She was lucky that the fall hadn't broken anything. "She did sound nervous when she finally admitted out loud that someone pushed her overboard."

"I would be too." Bree raises her eyebrows. "It's too bad Presley wasn't around to save the day."

"Frankie did say that Lacy Leigh had nothing but good things to say about Presley," I add.

Bree sits up straighter and puts down her beignet without taking another bite. Her eyes dart from me, to the opposite end of the café, and then back to me again. She holds up a finger—eyes glowing as if a light bulb had gone off in her head.

"That's it," Bree says proudly. "That's his secret. Well, no wonder he never said anything."

"What on earth are you talking about?" I wrinkle my nose, trying to follow her logic.

"Presley and Lacy had a thing," Bree whispers. "Now everything makes sense." Her eyes are as wide as two mini cupcakes.

"Bree, that's absurd, not to mention extremely unprofessional."

"Think about it." Bree leans across the table. "Lacy Leigh does nothing but complain every time she's in town, even about her own staff. Don't you find it odd that Presley has been granted angel status? It's because the two of them were involved." She laughs. "I can't believe I never saw it before."

"Back up," I protest. "It's a theory. That doesn't mean it's true." My mind jumps back to the moment on the boat when Presley kissed me. My heart was racing, and all I could think about was
us
. He couldn't have been seeing Lacy Leigh Nichols just days before, could he?

"Maybe the little room-swap thing was a lie too?" Bree goes on. Bree gasps and holds her hands up to her face. "Maybe she spent the night in his room?"

"Bree, if anything, he would have spent the night in her room," I point out.

"You don't know that."

"Then how do you explain Presley answering the door to Lacy's suite Saturday morning?" I respond. "Alone."

"Maybe he was getting something she left behind?" Bree suggests.

"Even if that's true, Lacy still ate the strawberry tartlets in Presley's room," I continue. "That means, whether or not they were sleeping together, the poison was still meant for Presley."

"Maybe Lacy tried to poison him." Bree shrugs.

"Sounds like a soap opera." My stomach rumbles, and I force myself to eat a small bite of croissant. "Besides, that means Lacy would have known where the poison was. She wouldn't have eaten it herself."

"Maybe she forgot?" Bree bites the side of her lip.

"I seriously doubt that," I answer.

"There is one other explanation," Bree points out. She glances around the café and lowers her voice so much that I have to scoot my chair closer to her. "What if…what if Presley did it?"

My cheeks go warm and my chest tightens. I clench my fists, refusing to believe any of it. The lies. The affair. The possible murder. Presley can't have done any of those things. I shake my head, holding back my frustrations. But I can't hold them for very long.

"Okay," I huff. "Maybe we should go. Clearly, you have heat stroke or something."

"Poppy, we're friends, right?"

"Right," I agree.

"How can you be so sure that Presley didn't lure Lacy into his room, wait for her to eat his poisoned tartlets, and get back to her room and make up this little room-swap story?"

"Because Presley would never do something like that," I say through my teeth. It's hard to be mad at someone like Bree. She never swears or takes my things without asking. She's just as good of a friend as she is a pastry chef, but maybe her common sense blew away in the ocean breeze.

"We have to be open to all theories, remember?" she adds. "And this theory makes the most sense right now. I just don't want to see you get hurt."

"No," I answer. "No, it couldn't have been Presley. He was with me when Frankie was pushed overboard. Explain that then."

"Killers do have accomplices sometimes."

"I think I'm finished here." I stand up, leaving most of my coffee untouched.

"Poppy," Bree responds. She finishes her beignet in one large bite. "Poppy, don't be mad at me. We have to think like Detective Sugars."

"You're right," I say quietly. "But it wasn't Presley. I'll prove it."

"How?" Bree replies. "It's not like you can just walk right up and ask him."

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